Is there life after dancing?

Photo credit: Natasha C Photography

A fortnight ago, twenty brave souls from my neighbourhood took to the stage to dance in a local version of the hit television shows, Dancing With the Stars and Strictly Come Dancing.

These popular shows featured celebrities performing alongside professional dance partners in a ballroom and latin dance competition. Only the dancers venturing on to the stage in our packed-out hall in the “Strictly Sumner” event weren’t pro/amateur combos - with the pro taking the lead and the novie just having to keep up - but involved both dance partners being utter novices: a case of the blind leading the blind which, frankly, upped the terror stakes considerably.

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But, no need to worry. On the night they shone. To be more precise, they sparkled, glittered, twirled, twisted, strutted, shuffled, shimmied, cha cha’d, gyrated and jived to universal delight. We were amazed by their proficiency, dazzled by their brilliance. Transformed from local builder, doctor, pharmacist, physio, restaurateur, shopkeeper, student, husband, wife, brother, sister, dad and mum they became stars in our eyes. Raising thousands of dollars for ten clubs and charities in our local community, all the hours and effort they put in earned them celebrity status for the weeks leading up to, and following, the event. Everywhere they went they were greeted with people wanting to know how their practice was going, who their partner was, what they were wearing, how hard the steps were, what music they were dancing to, how nervous they were feeling, and then, afterwards, telling them how amazing they were, how incredible they looked, how impressed we were by the complexity and agility of their moves. Local legends one and all.

Now, two weeks later, on a plain grey Wednesday morning I’m wondering how flat they must be feeling. Now that the sequin dresses and Cuban heels have been packed away, the fake tans faded and chest hair grown back (!), how does normal, monochrome, life feel? Because I’m married to one of them, I’ve spent a fair bit of time with this tight-knit dance crew the past few weeks. Being part of their post-event catch-ups and seeing their FB posts it’s obvious every last one of them is suffering post-event blues to one degree or other. Given the incredible high they’ve all experienced from bravely taking on such a high-stakes challenge - putting themselves so far out of their comfort zones for our entertainment and the benefit of the community - it’s hardly surprising that they’ll suffer some form of come down. But it’s not just the on-the-night-high they’ll be missing. The thing is with dancing, as anyone who’s watched Silver Linings Playbook will tell you, it has the power to transform. And learning to live again once your life has been transformed takes quite some doing.

When we compare the ingredients of dancing with current academic theories on the components of wellbeing it’s easy to see why being part of such an event pushed the participants’ wellbeing levels through the roof.

So, the real question is, are such high levels of wellbeing sustainable? What can the dancers do now that the event is over? The answer comes from looking again at that list of wellbeing components and working out how they, along with the rest of us, can make sure that our lives are ticking those boxes on a daily, weekly, monthly or even annual basis.

There is strong research suggesting that experiencing positive emotions is essential to both how we feel, and how we function. Barb Fredrickson’s work on positive emotions has shown how they play a vital role enabling us to broaden our perspective and discover a greater range of solutions and creativity, as well as building our social, intellectual, psychological and even physical resources over time. People reporting higher levels of positive emotions have even be shown to get less sick and heal faster.

The great thing about learning a new skill like dancing is that it requires total focus, thereby preventing us from ruminating on everything that’s going wrong in our lives and getting us down. The pinnacle of such utter and all encompassing absorption is a highly desirable psychological state known as 'flow'. We are at our most creative and perform best when we are in flow. Straight after Trevor and Donna finished their first full dress rehearsal dance I asked him how it felt to be out there on the dance floor with everyone watching? “I can’t even remember it” came his reply. Losing all track of time is recognised by psychologists as a key characteristic of flow: we lose track of everything outside of the current moment, focusing all our resources on just one thing. You're so consumed by this one thing - that you love doing, that you're learning to get really good at, that nothing else seems to matter.

Strong supportive relationships have also long been recognised as essential for resilience and wellbeing. The basic finding in resilience research is that nobody goes it alone: humans are hard wired for social connection, it feels good and sustains us. Getting to know someone else really well, as our dancers have, also helps us become less judgmental of others and moves us out of our usual (social) comfort zones. Watching all those newly made friendships was good for the rest of us too.

Furthermore, humans operate best when they have some kind of sense of purpose/direction/meaning, call it what you will. I suspect that this was one of the hardest parts of the entire 16-week challenge for the dancers to grow accustomed to: all the lessons they had to turn up to, forced to drive across town on a Sunday night, having to practice, having to keep doing it over and over again). But, once it’s over, having no immediate sense of purpose, and living without direction and an immediate goal to work towards leaves us feeling bereft. We may not all like the idea of goal setting, but a dancing competition such as this highlights how important it is to have a sense of direction in our daily lives, projects that give us purpose and end points to work towards. Ultimately, it’s this sense of purpose that drives our continued learning and leaves us with a sense of mastery. All of which feel really, really good and, it turns out, can be quite addictive.

Finally, dancing provides all the benefits of regular physical activity without going to the gym. For those of us, and of course there are many, who struggle to be regularly active, chucking a dance class into your weekly routine is a fun way to ensure you move more without having to put the Lycra on. As I constantly like to remind myself, physical activity isn’t just good for our hearts, but is essential for brain function. Exercise is medicine. Dancing just happens to be a whole lot of fun as well.

So, is it any wonder those dancers are feeling a bit spare, a bit empty and a little bereft now that all the fun and movement and friendships are over? But the good thing is that it doesn’t have to be over. All the time they were out there attending dance lessons, I hope they picked up some essential life lessons too. That this entire incredible experience has taught us all that everyone needs positive emotions, focus, strong supportive relationships, purpose, continued learning and physical movement in their lives. And in a village like ours, we can all help each other keep ticking those boxes. That’s what community resilience is about.